Career: Postdoctoral Fellow | Georgia Institute of Technology | Atlanta, Georgia, USA
Farmer Suicide in India
An alarming trend has been observed over the past 20 years: Indian farmers are taking their own lives, a trend that many source in part to their inability to pay down crushing debts incurred from the purchase of genetically modified seeds. Some have blamed this on the greed of big pharmaceuticals, whose seeds promise much but whose full price tag is not immediately obvious. Others source this to reduced parcels of land, and others to reduced or eliminated subsidies, incurred through pressures of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. It is undoubtedly true that all of these factors have played a role, but the ultimate concern is that Indian farmers are committing suicide and the trend is only increasing.
The extent of this tragedy is perhaps further clouded by the official definition of who qualifies as a farmer. The National Crime Report Bureau (NCRB) defines a farmer as someone with “title to land,” which means that those who farm and kill themselves but do not have title to land do not figure in these statistics. For example, as one older farmer related: “My son ran the farm…I am 80 years old. However, the land is still in my name.” As it happened the son did not have title to the land, so when he took his own life, his death did not qualify as a farmer suicide.
Nonetheless, even making use of this wildly restrictive definition of what constitutes a farmer, the numbers are still staggering; according to the data reported by the NCRB, 270,940 “farmers” have committed suicide since 1995, which accounts for one suicide every half an hour. These averages are also not entirely reflective of the degree of the crisis. While the averages suggest a farmer suicide rate that is “only” 47 percent higher (16.3 per 100,000) than the rest of India (11.1), that average in the five predominantly agricultural regions of Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh is up to 300 percent higher than other regions. Furthermore, over time the suicide rate has alarmingly climbed, going from 9.3 in 1995 (lower than the national average) to 18.2 in 2006, while for male non-farmers, it has remained relatively even, going from 13.3 in 1995 to 13.9 in 2006. So what went wrong?
One belief is that over the past two decades the farming labor force has increased and cultivable land has decreased resulting in more people holding less land. These shrinking parcels of land have been well-documented: from 1960 to 2003, for example, the number of farming land holdings doubled from 51 million to 101 million while the land operated on declined from 133 million to 108 million hectares.
The main drawbacks of having a smaller farm are higher fixed costs as well as reduced bargaining ability, which in turns leads to greater difficulties in gaining access to credit and insurance. What’s more, despite the significant size of the farmer population, their interests tend to be underrepresented in economic reforms due to their lacking a unified political organization to represent their interests.
But perhaps the greatest of ironies is that due to their increasingly desperate situation, farmers in India have become increasingly malnourished.
In 2004-05 about 357 million farmers of the agrarian community were undernourished, 83.1 percent of these being small-marginal farmers. In some cases, the indebted farmer, lured by the success stories and inflated claims of high-yield (but high-risk) crops, have switched to these crops, but in less suitable conditions: poorly irrigated areas, pest outbreak, poor knowledge and monsoon failure, just to name a few. When the crops fail, these farmers find themselves with no income and crushing debt. These problems are exacerbated by strong international competition from Sudan, Egypt and Israel.
Ultimately, with increasing indebtedness, political neglect, poor policy implementations and exposure to global market volatilities, the Indian farmer has been pushed into something worse than a Faustian bargain — for it is ultimately no bargain at all.